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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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We learn about a character in a story by comparing that person with other characters. We've already had ample opportunity to consider how Gene measures up to Finny. And we've observed Gene's new, if shaky, friendship with Brinker-a moody, boisterous fellow who in some ways is more typical of his age than Finny (at one extreme) or Gene (at the other).

Now what do we make of Leper Lepellier? Are you surprised to read of his desertion from the army and secret retreat to his home in Vermont, or did you expect this daring action? Why does Leper alert Gene? If you recall the snow-shoveling episode, you'll remember that Gene alone was sympathetic to Leper's choice when he went off on his own to ski and hunt for beaver dams.

Gene strikes off into the heart of Vermont to visit Leper. The war's immensity and the true danger of what Leper has done still have not dawned upon him. The beauty of morning in a snow-shrouded Vermont occupies his thoughts: "this Grecian sun evoked joy from every angularity and blurred with brightness the stiff face of the countryside."

Gene's first impressions on seeing Leper tell us there is something new and oddly wrong with the boy. On the brink of displaying his anguish and distress, Leper keeps pulling himself back, as if he were wearing a mask. Gene wishes it were all a dream, an illusion, but even Finny's hypnotic fantasies about the war cannot help him here, in isolation with Leper. Gene wishes he had never come. Answering Leper's call carries with it the burden of having to figure out what to do about him. And Gene's sense of responsibility is already overstrained with the burden of Finny.

"What do you mean, you escaped?" an incredulous Gene asks his friend. "You don't escape from the army." Leper is furious at himself, for going into the army in the first place; at the army, for its completely unpredictable pressures that were far too great for him to tolerate; at Gene, because he represents all the boys at Devon who have not yet made the great step forward. Leper tells the confused story of what happened to him. It turns out that he was on the verge of being discharged for mental unfitness.

Gene doesn't understand (or doesn't want to understand) the depth of Leper's mental torture. Leper admits that part of his reason for joining the army was to please his parents; he was trapped, as so many children of every age are, by that basic need that can never be completely fulfilled.

Up to now Gene has, as usual, been a captive audience, attendant ear, and trusted listener. But then Leper lashes out, accusing Gene of being "a savage underneath... like that time you knocked Finny out of the tree."

This accusation-does it shock you when you read it?- drives Gene into a fury. He kicks Leper's chair and the boy falls to the floor, giggling incoherently.

Gene guiltily accepts lunch with Leper and his mother as "one long and elaborate apology" for what he has just done. He is still consumed with remorse. How close to the surface the memory of that fateful evening at the tree remains!

The two boys go for a walk in the snowy, ice-encrusted fields. Gene keeps hoping Leper will be transformed magically into his old self and become again the inquisitive, polite, sensitive lad he used to be. But Leper has been through a terrible time, and his brief sojourn in the army has taken its toll. As Gene strives to carry on some semblance of a normal conversation, he observes that Leper's frail psyche is as vulnerable as the crackling ice surface over which they walk.

The natural world-beaches, woods, green fields, rivers-has always offered a refuge for Gene, a place where he can gain solace and peace. His walk with Leper over frozen wastelands does not accomplish the same cleansing purpose.

Gene brings up Brinker's name. Leper snaps back, "I'd know that bastard if he'd changed into Snow White." Gene had not realized that Leper harbored hateful thoughts about Brinker. Is this venomous attitude representative of the new "psycho" Leper?

Leper tries to explain what happened to him. He describes life in the army: the abrupt transition from sheltering Devon, the horrendous food, the rough-woven uniforms, the brutalizing routine, the illness of those around him. We begin to imagine the disastrous effect of all these elements on a vulnerable boy.

Like Gene, we begin to wonder how much it takes to drive a person crazy, and we try to understand-as Leper describes his recurrent fantasy of women's faces on men's bodies-the horror that war has even for someone who did not come close to fighting it.

"This has nothing to do with me! Nothing at all! I don't care!" is all Gene can come out with; loud, absolute denial is his sole defense. He runs away, leaving Leper alone with the snow, wind, and cold. And again we ask ourselves what we would have done in Gene's shoes. Is Leper beyond help, beyond hope?

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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